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  • Writer's pictureRia Gualano

Quarantine Dreaming

Smoking Fruit Cup. Source: Lan Gualano

Frowning eyes and smiling faces surround me as we conclude our annual family reunion in China. The ghost of Sunday brunch haunts the restaurant’s cheap white tablecloth, dim sum pots stacked on top of each other like coffins in a crypt. Fish skeletons, chicken feet scraps, bun wrappers and watermelon seeds are flung carelessly on filthy square plates, nestled between freshly smoked cigarettes and abandoned tea leaves.

“Picture!” my former piano teacher mumbles in broken English, strands of her coiled brown hair bouncing furiously as she attempts to gather our attention.

Chairs groan, kids whimper and adults hiss. Aunts and grandmothers run bent fingers through graying hair while their husbands pat their thin, wispy patches into place as we prepare for the first of many group photos. My mom, sensing my lack of enthusiasm, squeezes my hand in encouragement.

On the other side of the table, a waitress steadies the phone camera.

“Yi, Er, San.”

The camera flashes and I bite my lip, squinting. When my eyes open, the waitress is gone.

“Weird,” I think. Somehow, the word materializes in a loud shout that slams against my ears, but I don't remember saying anything out loud.

I move to tug on my mom’s hand, but my fist closes on empty air.

“Mom?” Again, I hear my thoughts aloud without actually speaking them. Is someone messing with me? How are they reading my mind?

My throat constricts as I whirl around to an empty room. My mom, screaming kid cousins, grandparents – all the waiters, chefs, and other patrons – they’re all gone. I sprint beneath unlit chandeliers, past dozens of empty tables. A hundred red velvet stairs later, my body slams into a revolving door and I stumble into the rain.

Green taxis whir by, car horns blaring in conversation with one another. Cyclists in bright ponchos weave in-between cars. Streams of people swim down the street. The elderly walk slowly with eyes closed and heads tilted towards the sky. Young professionals in suits and heels engage in a panicked hobble-run.

“Ria!” I hear my mom exclaim as she thrusts a crumpled umbrella over my head. “You’ll catch a cold. Where’s your umbrella?”

I jump at the sound of her voice.

“Sorry.” I sniff, blinking rain from my eyes.

I wave goodbye to relatives as their gray heads disappear into cabs, then follow a familiar trail of puddles to the souvenir alley down the block.

Every so often, I brush my mom’s grip on the handle of our umbrella to make sure she’s still there. By the time we reach the alley, the rain has calmed to a drizzle and crowds emerge from the shelter of wrinkled trees at its entrance. Within minutes of entering, the sun glitters on silver bracelets, miniature wax pop figures and a swarm of glistening foreheads.

I collect a golden caramel dragon from a man spinning candy Zodiac animals. Beside him is a woman with a pit of beads, fanning her face with a rolled-up magazine as a mob of tourists sifts through them. Pastel pink, blue, green and yellow hearts spill from their containers, edging towards a small bowl of uncooked rice. Woven red and black bracelets dangle from a wooden branch above, their transparent center beads hollow so that a single grain of rice can be engraved and inserted.

The woman glances at me, waiting. My mom taps her fingers on the wooden surface of the table, pen in hand, ready to compress my chosen phrase into fourteen Chinese characters.

I stare at the blank paper, pensive. “How about—”

The woman coughs, and my words evaporate. All conversation in the market ceases, and every head turns to stare at her. In the eerie silence, I watch her nose crinkle as she prepares to cough again, which causes people to start screaming, pushing, fleeing the alley in a frenzy.

I bolt upright, gasping, hand clutching my pillow.

Weird dream.

I start to rub my eyes, then freeze. Rule #1: don’t touch your face. I forgot again. I shake my head, checking a text from my mom.

“Morning! Remember this?”

Attached is the photo from last summer’s reunion. I smile at the memory as I reach for my mask, uncertain of when I will grimace at a pot of chicken feet or smile for a cramped family photo again.

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